Fractured Prospect

Terry Collins remembers flying back from the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic. It was February 2009, and the future New York Mets manager was feeling hopeful about Fernando Martinez. Collins watched Martinez play pain-free in the first game of a doubleheader before catching his flight back to the States. Maybe, just maybe, this was the turning point in the career of the Mets top prospect.

“When I got off the flight I had a message: he’s hurt again,” Collins shook his head in disbelief.

The injury was not the first Martinez suffered, and in hindsight, wouldn’t be the last. Since signing with the Mets in July 2005, a deal that included a $1.4 million signing bonus, Martinez has been on the disabled list nine times. His afflictions could be tallied by the body part – knee, elbow, hand, hamstring, lower back.

The $1.4 million question became: Could Fernando Martinez stay healthy long enough to play?

”That’s the goal, to keep him on the field,” said Buffalo manager Tim Teufel. “We know he has talent; it’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”

The Mets and Martinez were hopeful a fresh start would bring good health and good fortune. The following spring, Martinez played in 10 games, batting .333 (8-for-24). Still, the Mets wanted him to prove he could perform at a high level and, more importantly, stay healthy. He carried his hot bat north to Buffalo with a four-hit game the first week of the season. One week later, Martinez was sent back to the disabled list with a sore hamstring.

“It’s not that you doubt the talent,” said assistant GM John Ricco. “It’s getting the [at-bats]. If not, that’s in the equation. Angel Pagan was a similar case. Everybody knew he had the talent, but you start to say, ‘OK, how long can we go?’ At some point he’s going to have to stay healthy.”

“He’s worth every penny,” Sandy Johnson, Mets’ VP for scouting, told the Times. “He’s a complete player.”

Baseball America ranked Martinez the No. 20 prospect. By last season he was at No. 77 on the list and headed south. One injury after another, year after year, deflated Martinez’ stock value. The Wall Street Journal called him “the forgotten prospect … no one is frothing over him anymore.”

“Sometimes I say, ‘Come on, what happened?’” Martinez said. “What happened to me? I play very hard. I’m young. Maybe all the injuries will stop one day.”

The injuries left him hobbled by arthritis in his right knee, a history that presents potential problems in the future. Ken Oberkfell, who managed him in Buffalo for two years said, “It’s been a leg issue with most of the stuff, so it’s slowed down his defensive development and his offensive development. You use your legs a lot to hit and obviously you use your legs a lot to play the outfield.”

“It’s really hard to project what these guys are going to be, whether or not they’re going to stay healthy,” said Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ former vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “To be honest, we’re not real good at it as an industry.”

The waiting game ended in January 2012, when the Mets released Martinez. He never played a full season, at any level, due to recurring injuries. Since making his major league debut in 2009 (at age 20), he Martinez played in 99 major league games, compiling 282 career at-bats and a .206 batting average.

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POST SCRIPT: Martinez was signed by the Houston Astros, where he parts of two seasons before be traded to the New York Yankees. Six weeks after the deal, Martinez was suspended 50 games by the MLB for violating its drug policy. Today he plays for the Estrellas Orientales, the team from San Pedro de Macoris in the  Dominican Republic.

Winter Blues for Claire

We all make mistakes. The problem with making a mistake if you’re Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood or even Fred Claire is, it happens on the world stage for all to see.

Coincidentally, Claire’s miscues from the general manager’s chair have intersected at some point in history, with current or former members of the New York Mets. It’s like six degrees of separation, but not.

With the Winter Meetings come and gone and the New Year here, once again the ghosts of winters past will pay a visit to Claire.

It started in 1990 when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed free agent right fielder Darryl Strawberry away from the Mets. “No free agent had more talent that Darryl Strawberry,” wrote Claire in his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue. “But there are no championship stories to be written about Darryl as a Dodger.”

To Claire’s credit, at the time, the signing of Strawberry to a five-year deal was celebrated. The former Met was already an eight-year major league veteran at age 28 and was coming off a productive season in New York, hitting 37 HR and 107 RBI. It was believed Strawberry’s best days were in front of him.

Strawberry, a California native and Crenshaw High School graduate, was coming home when he signed in Los Angeles. No one, including Claire, could have predicted the nightmare that lie ahead for Strawberry.

After a productive 1991 season, it was all down hill for Strawberry. Between 1992 and 1993, the Dodgers right fielder played in 75 games. He suffered through numerous injuries and off-the-field bigger problems were brewing.

“It came to a breaking point at our final exhibition game at Anaheim Stadium in April of 1994,” Claire recalls. “Darryl failed to show up for our Sunday game.

“I told the media I didn’t know where Darryl was. It was obvious I was upset. The only feeling greater than my anger was my concern about Darryl’s whereabouts. Finally that evening, I received a call from Darryl.

“Fred,” he said, “I just want you to know I’m OK, and I will be with the team tomorrow.”

“No, Darryl, you won’t be with the team,” Claire said. “I want to meet with you tomorrow morning because we have come to an end of the road. You failed to show the responsibility that is needed to be part of our team. You can bring any representatives you care to have with you.”

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The next day Strawberry and his lawyer Robert Shapiro arrived at the Dodgers offices. Shapiro wasted no time, telling Claire, “We want you to know that Darryl has a problem with substance abuse. We have talked to the Players’ Association about getting assistance for Darryl.”

Shapiro’s efforts to salvage Strawberry’s career in Los Angeles were too late. Claire had already made a decision in the best interest of the Dodger organization to cut ties with Strawberry and the trail of personal problems accompanying him.

As Claire recalled, Strawberry sat in the Dodgers offices with tears streaming down his face.

“Fred, I feel sorry that I let you and the Dodgers down,” he said.

Claire’s Winter blues reached it’s peak on November 17, 1993, the day he traded Pedro Martinez(now the ace of the Mets staff), then 22, to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields. Claire recalls the misery so well he dedicated a full chapter to it in his book.

“There’s one baseball trade … where I wish I could have had a second chance,” wrote Claire, “That trade, of course, was the one that sent Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos … in exchange for second baseman Delino DeShields.”

The Dodgers needed a second baseman, and before trading Martinez, Claire made a three-year, $7.8 million offer to Jody Reed. Instead of taking the deal, Reed tested the free agent market and the Dodgers pulled the offer. Claire later considered free agents Harold Reynoldsand Robby Thompson. Reynolds, then 33, was not a long-term solution and Thompson re-signed with the San Francisco Giants before the Dodgers could make a serious bid.

With Reed still on the open market, Claire decided to look elsewhere anyway. After learning about DeShields availability and the Expos asking price (Martinez), Claire picked up the phone.

“I made two calls before moving forward with the deal,” said Claire, “One to Tommy Lasordaand one to Ralph Avila, the man in charge of our baseball operations in the Dominican Republic. I told both men they had veto rights on the trade. Both agreed it was a good deal for the Dodgers in that we would solve our problem at second with an outstanding young player.”

In three full seasons with the Dodgers, DeShields hit .240, playing in just 89 games in 1994, his first year with Los Angeles. He retired after the 2002 season with a career .268 batting average, hitting a career high .296 for the Baltimore Orioles in 2000.

Martinez spent four years in Montreal compiling a 55-33 record, striking out 222 batters in 1996 and 305 in 1997. It was his final year with Montreal that he made his mark with a 17-8 record, a 1.90 ERA, 305 strikeouts, 13 complete games in 241 innings pitched for a team that finished the season under .500 (78-84). Martinez signed with the Red Sox in 1998 and the rest is history … a career record of 197-84, 2.72 ERA, 2,861 career strikeouts, two 20-game winning seasons and, of course, three Cy Young Awards (1997, 1999 and 2000).

In reflection, Claire wrote, “The deal was made. There are no mulligans in baseball.”

The final strike was the trade of Mike Piazza, a deal that shocked Los Angeles, its fans, the baseball community and Claire himself. It was a trade that subsequently led to Claire’s departure as Dodgers general manager.

The Piazza story is a great story for baseball fans, not so much for Claire. “The deal which sent Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile to the Marlins … was struck without even the courtesy of informing me, the Dodger general manager.”

It was a sign of the times for the Dodgers. They had just been bought by Fox television from the legendary, and longtime baseball family, the O’Malley’s. To this day, as Claire tells it, the trade that sent Piazza out of Los Angeles was “first and foremost a television deal” constructed and executed by Fox TV executive Chase Carey.

As the 1998 baseball season approached, Piazza was heading for his final season under contract when Fox assumed control of the Dodgers. “The last thing Fox wanted was a bidding war over Mike,” wrote Claire, “and the embarrassing possibility that the team’s most popular player would choose to depart … Incredibly, they managed to make it an even worse start.”

The transition in ownership delayed talks between Piazza and the Dodgers. So much so, spring training came and went with no deal, infuriating Piazza. The future Hall of Fame catcher finally exploded.

After an Opening Day loss in St. Louis, Piazza was approached by Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times about the contract talks. Piazza lashed out, telling Reid, “… I am confused and disappointed by the whole thing. I’m mad that this dragged into the season and that it now has become the potential to become a distraction … How can I not think about this?”

Claire was miffed to learn of Piazza’s public comments and requested to meet with him before the next day’s game. The general manager and the star met privately at Busch Stadium.

“I want to get this contract settled or I want out of here,” Piazza told Claire. “You guys are low-balling me!”

“First of all, Mike, we are not low-balling you,” Claire said. “ … your statements on Opening Day were not good for you or this team. I’m disappointed in you. We’re just starting out the season. We don’t need that bullshit.”

“I want to know what you guys want to do,” Piazza snapped back. “Either sign me or get me out of here.”

Less than a week later the Dodgers made Piazza a contract offer: six years, $81 million. Piazza’s agent Dan Lozano countered with seven years, $105 million. The Dodgers balked. No deal. Piazza shut down negotiations.

May 14, 1998: As the Dodgers and Phillies played at Dodger Stadium, Claire received a phone call from team president Bob Graziano, who was in the Dominican Republic. Graziano informed Claire, “Fred, we made a trade that needs to be announced tonight,” he said. “We have acquired Gary SheffieldCharles JohnsonBobby Bonilla and Jim Eisenreich for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.”

Claire later recalls thinking to himself, “Talk about stunning news,” he wrote. “Here I was, general manager of the Dodgers, being informed of a trade already consummated … I could barely believe what I was hearing.”

Claire told Graziano, “Bob, there will be two announcements tonight, because I will have an announcement on my status … after this trade, you don’t need me.”

In retrospect, the deal was never announced that night. Bonilla’s no-trade clause had to be waived before the deal could be finalized. He did and Claire’s living nightmare became a reality. After the announcement was made at a press conference at Dodger Stadium by the team’s public relations director Derrick Hall, Claire told the media, “I want to be perfectly clear on how I learned of this trade. I received a telephone call from Bob Graziano in the Dominican Republic.”

Afterward, Florida Marlin general manager Dave Dombrowski said, “I felt bad from Fred’s perspective, but we all get caught up in situations we can not control” he said. “But the circumstances of that trade, with Fred not being included at all, were one of the most unusual I’ve seen in my career.”

Claire admits his public statements eventually cost him his job with the Dodgers, a harsh, abrupt end to a long and successful tenure.

Broken

Dickie Thon described it this way: “It was like a boom … a dead sound. Like a thud.”

Today, the boxscore reads HBP (hit by pitch) but, for Thon, it was more than that. The Astros All-Star shortstop had been hit by a pitch major league pitches four times prior to April 8, 1984. No. 5 — a fastball by New York Mets pitcher Mike Torrez — fractured Thon’s orbital bone around his left eye, changing his life and career.

A fuzzy 30 year old video shows Thon frozen at the plate as the baseball exploded off his left ear flap and grazing his temple before striking his eye. Harvey said Torrez’ fastball started out waist high, then suddenly took a sharp right. Thon crumbled. The Dome went quiet as Thon slowly rocked back-and-forth, his right arm covering his face. Home plate umpire Doug Harvey leaned over and saw that Thon was still conscious. Jose Cruz, who was in the Astros’ on-deck circle, Torrez and Astros manager, Bob Lillis circled around him.

”The first thing I thought of is that I want to make it, I want to live and see my family again,” said Thon.

Nothing was the same after that moment.

Thon spent the next week in the hospital and underwent surgery to have a small piece of bone realigned.

Torrez called Thon the next day to apologize.

“I don’t blame Mike Torrez,” he told the New York Times. “I blame myself. I think, ‘Why did I let this happen?’ I just stood there.”

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In the weeks and months following his surgery, Thon said he remembers waking up each morning and he’d lie still and look around the bedroom. He would try to focus on an object — the alarm clock, a light bulb, a photograph — testing his ability to see clearly. He struggled.

Thon’s eyesight went from 20/20 before the pitch to 20/150. Over time his sight improved to 20/40. Still, tracking a moving sphere traveling towards him at 90+ mph, was much more challenging.

Thon attempted to take batting practice, but the white sphere was a blur coming at him.

“I still had a blind spot in my left eye,” he said. “I had to concentrate on seeing the ball.”

As time passed and Thon healed, a new challenge arose; scar tissue was forming around the retina in his left eye, further blurring his vision and impeding his depth-perception.

”I drive home and I can’t always tell how far the traffic light is,” he told the media.

Thon and the Astros came to realize there was no chance he would return in 1984. His season was over after just five games. So, instead of playing, Thon watched in uniform from the bench.

After two fitful seasons of ups-and-downs, Thon arrived in Kissimmee, Florida in the spring of 1987 optimistic and ready for a fresh start. But he struggled early and often both in the field and at the plate, going 0-for-8 and committing three errors in the three spring starts.

Thon walked out of camp hours before a scheduled. Frustrated by his struggles he was ready to quit baseball. He was no longer the same player — the 1983 All-Star — that hit .286/20 HR/79 RBI/34 SB). The Astros brass encouraged Thon to see a doctor. He underwent more than two hours of intensive eye exams.

Team doctors cleared Thon, but his performance deteriorated and his playing time dwindled. He played in 32 games during the 1987 season, hitting .212 in 83 plate appearances.

“When I got hit, I was a .280 hitter, and I went down to .240-something,” he said. “I learned to play the best I could … I couldn’t see the ball very well after I got hit in my left eye. I had to make adjustments. It’s tough to do that in the big leagues, but I did manage to play 10 [more] years.”

Thon signed a free agent deal with the San Diego Padres in 1988. Over his last five seasons he jumped from team-to-team including stints with Philadelphia, Texas and Milwaukee before retiring after the 1993 season.

From Dynasty to Disappointment

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Seaver Changed Mets Losing Culture

On April 29, 1967 — the day Atlantic Records released Aretha Franklin’s single “Respect” — the New York Mets were shutout, 7-0, by the Cincinnati Reds. The loss dropped the Mets into ninth place (7 ½ GB) in the National League just two weeks into the season.

A Franchise Tipping Point

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The Bad Guys Won

Leading companies are adding new talent to support a digital operating model. To develop sharp insights using digital tools, procurement teams will need data science and analytics expertise.

Mets Hall Falls Short

The New York Mets 55-year history has more than 100 years worth of memories. The people (owners, managers and players), the games and the legendary success (and failure) are enough to fill an enormous amount of space and time.

Recently, I walked through the gates of Citi Field for the first time. I intentionally wanted to experience what a fan experiences, not a member of the media, so I bought my tickets online and planned my visit ever so carefully.

The Mets had just returned home from a nine-game road trip. The team had won seven straight and, to some surprise, held a six-and-one-half game lead in the National League East.

The game itself offered a handful of intriguing storylines itself: Matt Harvey was making his first start after an 11-day rest; David Wright was playing his first home game since April 14; and, the Boston Red Sox were in town. Hello, 1986.

When the gates opened to fans at 5:30 p.m. I passed through the gates into the rotunda. I had seen it in photos, but now, I could witness the expansive Ebbets Field-style entrance. Since its inception in 2009, the design has remained wholly intact.

The Jackie Robinson rotunda was a location of great debate when Citi Field opened to the public; it’s where awe and disappointment collided. The recognition of Jackie Robinson, his baseball legacy and his cultural significance are captured exquisitely in a panaromic tribute of videos, words, classic photos and the over-sized No. 42 beaming over fans criss-crossing the space.

Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, said:

“Our history is linked to the Mets and to New York. For me, the tribute being paid to Jackie actually acknowledges his historic career in baseball and, just as important, his impact on our society. So it’s the man, not just the ballplayer, that is being celebrated there.”

The wrinkle, at least among fans, is in the fact that the Citi Field rotunda is more a tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers than its team, the New York Mets. Team owner Fred Wilpon has publicly shared his friendship with Sandy Koufax and love for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a child.

No debate there.

But what about recognizing the current tenants — the Mets?

Once inside Citi Field, you clearly see and feel the presence of the home team by way of the fans, its massive video and graphics boards and big red home run apple. But there is a feeling, a sense, that what happened at Shea Stadium is being left behind.

Let’s start at the core and that very apple. The home run apple that once was a centerpiece of so many magical Mets moments over the years, is now retired and on display outside the ballpark. It has become a gathering place where fans meet before the game, some climb through the flower bed and take a selfie in front as a memory. Lifelong fans reminisce about Darryl Strawberry’s and Mike Piazza’s moon shots that set off the apple. Good times. Understandably, the old apple was replaced by modern technology and a new, polished red apple that creates new memories every home team home run.

Remember the painted championship flags — 1969 World Series Champions, 1973 National League Champions, 1986 World Series Champions, 1999 Wild Card, 2000 National League Champions, 2006 National League East Champions — on the outfield walls at Shea Stadium? They are now static signs along the third base line. They appear much smaller and insignificant in relation to the eye-popping high tech motion graphics flashing between every pitch.

Championships, and winning, are a symbol of success. They should be prominently displayed. At Citi Field, and maybe by no intent, they’re accomplishments are diminished.

The most disturbing display of disrespect at Citi Field is the franchise Hall of Fame. I have always believed that the New York Mets are a team that has one of professional sports richest and deepest histories. Since Casey Stengel, the Mets have fielded teams (and players) and played in some of the most historic games in baseball history. That’s a lot of years and millions of games.

In response, the Mets have managed to create a small corner off the team store that the team calls the Mets Hall of Fame where maybe a half dozen jerseys, a handful of baseball, a wall of plaques, two World Series trophies and a pair of kiosks loop a short documentary of Mets memories.

Really?

From Casey Stengel to Marv Thronberry, Jimmy Piersall, Gil Hodges, Joan Payson, William Shea, Tom Seaver, 1969, the shoe polish game, Tommie Agee, 1973, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, the Rose-Harrelson fight, Dave Kingman, the Seaver trade, new owners, Frank Cashen, Darryl Strawberry Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, 1986, Game 6 of the NLCS and World Series, Bill Buckner, Bobby Valentine, 1999, Robin Ventura’s walk-off, Mike Piazza, 2000, Subway Series, 9/11, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Endy Chavez, The Catch, 2006, David Wright Jose Reyes … and so many memorable highs and lows in between. There are so many pieces of memorabilia missing, it’s shocking.

The Mets Hall hasn’t evolved or expanded since it opened in 2010. Sure, some items have been rotated in and out, but no expansion. The Mets public relations team, and team historian, need to take a lesson from its colleagues in Cincinnati, who provide the model for team-centric Hall of Fames.

Of course, the Reds have a baseball history that begins in the 1880s. But like I said, the Mets have ample history — and a wealth of memories. It’s time to get to work.